The One with the Workers’ Paradise City

David Young, Stasi Wolf (2017)

I can’t believe it’s been 5 years (five! I would have sworn 3 maximum!) since I read the first book of this series. I still remember it quite well, which is a testament to David Young’s skills. I had quite enjoyed this foray into the world of the German Democratic Republic and its criminal underworld, especially as I am old enough to remember it. Young has created a believable character, Karin Müller, full of nuances. She is a police officer with crimes to investigate and murderers to catch, as expected, but her job is way more complicated in a country where crime is not supposed to exist, and where political surveillance applies to all including the police force itself.

This second book picks up a few months after the end of the first one, and I must say that, contrary to many mysteries, I strongly recommend to read the first one before. Karin has refused to work for the Stasi and she’s been punished with a boring cop job in Berlin admonishing rebellious youth. But she’s given another opportunity, away from the capital, in a town where two babies have recently disappeared. Her mission is to lead the investigation to find them asap, without telling any civilian that there actually was a crime. Halle Neustadt (aka Ha-Neu in short, pronounced like the Vietnamese capital) is supposed to be a model Communist town where model industry workers live an ideal life in modern apartments with all the modern amenities (toilets! fridges!). The disappearance of babies has no place in the propaganda, especially as Communist brother leader Fidel Castro will soon come for a visit.

Karin is highly frustrated by all the hindrances the secret police and the party are putting on the investigation, but if she doesn’t toe the line, her desk job awaits her back in Berlin. Soon enough, she suspects that the case is more than a simple disappearance. Her past is catching up with her too, as Ha-Neu is close to her childhood home, where difficult questions have been left unanswered.

I was fascinated by the setting of Ha-Neu and the book sent me right down the rabbit hole of archives photos to see how this socialist city was supposed to be back then and how it still functions now… or not. (Google Ha-neu only if you have some spare time ahead!). I didn’t enjoy the plotting structure as much as the first book, as Young alternates chapters from an unknown voice and chapters with Karin’s investigation, and there’s a lot of back and forth in time. Still, there was enough red herrings (in a red city, sorry-not-sorry for the bad pun) and twists to keep me hooked until the end. I was interested to learn more about Karin’s childhood and back story but it was a bit too easy to guess what was coming on that side.

[Spoilers ahead] The ending made me roll my eyes more than a little. There are far too many coincidences with the personal life of Karin… The poor detective has to give birth to twins with an emergency C-section and then hop out of bed, ride a car, a helicopter and God knows what else to save the day. Sorry but at that point the plausibility was stretched way too far! The research about history may be impeccable, but Young could have asked any woman having had a C-section (which is admittedly way easier than historical research) and she would have pulled down this part of the book before it went to print. It might be a solid digression, but it made me think of the male gaze and of the lack of women in the publishing industry (I would hope that a female editor would have objected too).

Despite its obvious weaknesses I am willing to give the series one more chance to redeem itself, because the setting and the main character are worth it. I am awfully late to the series (which is now at #6!), so have you read the next one(s) and does it remain as enjoyable?

The one where you can’t trust your best friend

David Young, Stasi Child (2015)

As soon as Marina Sofia mentioned Stasi Child, I knew I wanted to read it. She also has a wonderful post about mysteries set in dysfunctional societies, and the German Democratic Republic was one of those.

I do remember the DDR, from which you’ll probably guess my age if you’re curious. I went there as a child (toddler?) with my parents, in East Berlin, but I have just a vague memory of the zoo and of a tiny red swimsuit with a strategically-placed apple. I remember that we were supposed to study the DDR as a model of success for the Eastern block in middle school in 1988-1989, but somehow it dropped out of the curriculum as soon as it entered the television news on a daily basis. I remember watching the Berlin wall being pushed open on television. We knew things were gray and sad on the other side, but we didn’t realize what it meant to live in a closed country under the surveillance of anyone and everyone.

This mystery rebuilds the atmosphere of ordinary life behind the wall, or should I say, the anti fascist protection barrier. The Oberleutnant Karin Müller is called to investigate the death of a teenaged girl who seems to have defected… from the West. But even as she takes the case, she is warned that it is especially sensitive and that her every move will be under scrutiny from the political police, the in-famous Stasi. If it wasn’t enough, Karin has some issues at home as well, as her marriage is put at risk by her own behavior at work (working long hours and flirting with a colleague) and the political “doubts” of her husband. It gets worse and worse when the murder case makes her question the morality of the top leaders of the country, at the exact same time as her husband gets “disappeared” by the secret political police.

The novel had quite a heavy atmosphere and really gave me goosebumps. The air was stuffy and claustrophobic in there and there was nowhere to escape. I liked that Karin clung to her beliefs, the propaganda that had been instilled in her brain, that the West was bad and corrupt, and that the communist system was best even if more frugal. Even when she had a chance to take a peek at West-Berlin for her investigation, defecting doesn’t really cross her mind. There were tidbits of real shocking information that were woven into the plot (like IKEA furniture being made by political prisoners) and it was well worth reading. The ending was suitably nerve-wracking and twisted, complete with a nice cliffhanger, so I am quite eager to follow Karin Müller wherever her investigations will take her next.